Various Artists

Black Secular Vocal Groups, Vol. 2

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The second volume in Document's four-part series examining Black Secular Vocal Groups focuses on the 1930s and brings out of the woodwork 34 recordings by six groups, most of which would be virtually forgotten today were it not for the efforts of the people behind this excellent label. The Grand Central Red Cap Quartet, named after baggage haulers at one of their country's largest railway stations, sang in a sweet, quaint, old-fashioned manner that may sound arcane to listeners accustomed to comparatively cynical 21st century entertainment. Whenever encountering sweet music of this vintage it is important to recognize and maybe even respect the fact that there was a large audience for this kind of entertainment during the first few decades of the 20th century. Recorded for Columbia in 1931, the heavily sugared "My Little Dixie Home" taps directly into a sordid tradition of songs idealizing life among people of color in the Deep South; "They Kicked the Devil Out of Heaven" is more fun, as it's a little spunkier. The Four Southern Singers cut their half-dozen sides for Victor and its Bluebird subsidiary in early 1933. The singers, who also doubled at times on guitar, violin, washboard, jug, and kazoo, appear to have been members of the Ward family: James, Owen, Robert, and Annie Laurie. Aside from two "Mammy" tunes (with "Mammy Lou" containing a reference to pickaninnies), they were capable of carrying on like a good-time string and jug band. In a clear demonstration of how North America's mingled rural traditions sometimes transcended artificial genre distinctions, "Careless Love" transforms itself into "She'll Be Comin' ‘Round the Mountain." Despite a lot of withering criticism by the author of the album notes, the Mississippi Mud Mashers were a very entertaining vocal quintet with guitar accompaniment. Their Bluebird records were cut in New Orleans in January, 1935. They are at their best on the lively "Take My Seat and Sit Down" and "Let's Go to Dinner," which is really "I Can't Dance I Got Ants in My Pants." The Five Jinks were a group of scat specialists who cut six sides for Bluebird in Charlotte, N.C. in February, 1937, sounding a lot like the Spirits of Rhythm. "Za Zu Swing" is instantly recognizable as Cab Calloway's "Scat Song," while "There Goes My Headache" is a very close cover of a zippy recording by the Mills Brothers. "Just Dream of You" and "Shim Sham Shimmie at the Cricket's Ball" represent a tiny fraction of the Norfolk Jazz Quartet's prodigious recorded output. This excellent group, who began recording in 1921 as either the Norfolk Jazz or Jubilee Quartet, cut an enormous number of records, most of which have been reissued in six volumes by Document. Lastly, the Oleanders were formed as the official school vocal quartet at Ohio's Wilberforce University. Right around the time that these sides were recorded, two of the members, Ira Williams and Edward Jackson, split off to join a soon to be more than moderately successful vocal harmony group known as the Charioteers.

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